Friday, 12 August 2011


Books That Saved My Life

When I was five years old I used to walk to my local library. It was 1963 and it wasn't so strange then for young children to walk the streets. I used to sit on the wooden floor of the library and flick through the sparsly worded adventures of a little boy in Africa who faced the wrath of a tiger.

His mother made him a beautiful little red coat, and a pair of beautiful little blue trousers and his father bought him a green umbrella and a lovely pair of purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings.

On the inside cover is a picture of Little Black Sambo crying. I don't remember ever crying in those days but somehow I knew those tears were mine. Of course if published nowadays, the title, Little Black Sambo would cause a huge outcry, it did in fact have a controversial history.

The original illustrations by Helen Bannerman showed a caricatured Southern Indian or Tamil child. Bannerman wrote the story for her two daughters in 1898 when they were sent away to a hill station to escape the worst of the heat while their parents remained in Madras. Sadly it's thought, the story may have contributed to the use of the word "sambo" as a racial slur. The book's success led to many pirated, inexpensive, widely available versions that incorporated popular stereotypes of "black" peoples. In 1932 Langston Hughes, poet, social activist, novelist, and playwright confronted racial stereotypes, and criticised Little Black Sambo as a typical "pickaninny" storybook which was hurtful to black children, and gradually the book disappeared from lists of recommended stories for children. The book was banned in Japan as late as 1988.

However to me the book was my saviour. I didn't understand what cruel connotations Sambo had or that this little boy had a different colour skin to me, I would learn those lessons later in life. In 1963, Little Black Sambo was my hero, he faced the tigers who wanted to eat him and used cunning to outwit them. This was one of the first books that saved my life!

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